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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Nuclear weapons have made “demolishing” Pakistan a difficult task: Prof Stephen Cohen

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In light of the recent deteriorating relations between India and Pakistan, Najma Minhas, Managing Editor, Global Village Space, sat down with Prof Stephen Cohen to understand from him the dynamics between the two countries as he saw them.

Prof Stephen Cohen is Emeritus Professor of political science and history at the University of Illinois and a senior fellow at the India Project at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books on South Asia including ‘Shooting for a Century’, ‘The India-Pakistan Conundrum’,  ‘The Future of Pakistan’ and most recently in 2016, ‘The South Asia Papers’. He has played an important role for the past 50 years in shaping South Asian studies and has been named as one of the USA’s 500 most influential people in foreign affairs.

Najma: On Pakistan and India’s 70th Anniversary, do you think the two countries have achieved what was needed for their people, in general, (and not only for a small elite) and where did they not do as much as they could have?

Stephen: I don’t know what you mean by this, especially “for their people” whether in general or specificity, but I would respond that the governments of both have performed well, except for the loss of East Pakistan, given the rate of failure of other states [around the world]. I would say that they have been in the middle, Pakistan could have managed its relations with India better, and India could have done better internationally and with its neighbors.

Najma: From your writings, it seems that you think it was clear from the beginning of independence that these two countries would have very difficult relations, but then why do consecutive US governments emphasize, as if few adjustments made only by Pakistan towards India will usher in an era of great friendship between the two countries? 

Stephen: I don’t know where this comes from, Pakistan was an economic success as it began land reforms and made adjustments to its domestic governance, while India was still dragging along. The US shifted its policy several times during the China war [Indo-China 1962 war], and again in the 80’s when it warmed up to Nehru and post-Nehru leadership, but it did not “abandon’ Pakistan. This may be happening again, depending on how deep the Pak-China relationship will go. I would assume that the Chinese will have the same problems as the US did.

Najma: Much of the Indian public and writers view partition of British India as a division of “mother India”, and the creation of Pakistan as an affront or a historical defeat; a British or Muslim conspiracy. Without addressing this core problem, with such a prevailing view, is it not naive to expect harmonious relations? [keep in mind that state of British India only existed for 90 years from 1857 to 1947; before that India was always several princely states even in days of Mughal empire, which was mostly only in north]


Stephen: I have not found the “mother India” argument prominent in India-unless you are talking about recent years when it has grown, in numbers and quality. We have yet to see how Indians react to the idea that partition was a historical accident. In any case, there were good ideas (from an Indian perspective) to favor Pakistan. For example. B.R.Ambedkar wrote a book [Pakistan or the Partition of India] on the subject, arguing that the real problem with maintenance of a single [pre-partition India] army was the predominance of Punjabi Muslims in the officer corps. Now that the BJP is embracing the idea of Ambedkar; would this be a way of reconciling the two states identities?

This will be shaped by India’s domestic politics, it is hard to tell whether they would move right or not. The Mughals also controlled South India for a substantial time. However, you are right, the transformation of Indian politics did begin in the north, due to the actions of missionaries which threatened both Muslims and Hindus.

Najma: What do you think will it take to change this underlying negative relation between the two countries – from both sides; What would be the necessary catalyst or adjustments needed?

Stephen: I wrote a book [Shooting for a century] on this, and concluded that it was useless to pursue an idea which is now impossible; but people could determine the factors, including Pakistan’s domestic quandary and India’s movement towards the BJP. Domestic politics are very hard to change in either, but they provide the limiting factor.

Najma: How do we make sense of the continuing rise of BJP and extreme right wing political forces in Nehru’s India? With Yogi Adiyanath, as CM of UP (largest state of 200 million) even Modi has started looking pretty moderate; What is happening? What are its implications for the region? 


Stephen: Modi came into office with a hope of normalizing [relations] with Pakistan, while moving to consolidate the RSS and the BJP in power. He failed in the first goal, but will his attempt achieve the latter & strengthen his position is yet to be determined.

Najma: In your book India: Emerging power, you pointed out that India’s obsession with Pakistan along with its weak economy would cripple it. Until it accommodated, defeated or otherwise removed, Pakistan as a regional rival? Has India been successful in de-hyphenating itself from Pakistan through any or all of these three points? Is this what Modi government is trying to do? 

Stephen: Nuclear weapons made “demolishing ” Pakistan a difficult task. It is one that Modi and the rest of the BJP would not attempt. He seeks normalization without a nuclear war.

[In his book India Emerging Power, Stephen explains that normalization does not mean ‘peace’.]

Najma: Why does the USA not have a specific Pakistan policy given it is the second largest Muslim country with nuclear weapons in one of the world’s most volatile areas – why the hyphenation with India or Afghanistan? Does it make sense?

Stephen: The US wanted good relations with Pakistan and with India; we might wind up with bad ties with both, but that would not kill American policy (we have the capability of doing that on our own).

Najma: Some of the key US diplomats in Pakistan have been saying over the years that they want Washington to stop looking at Pakistan through the Indian and Afghan lens, but they feel that it’s not being understood or appreciated in Washington; What is the problem here?

Stephen: Washington has had a confused policy toward Pakistan for years, and it now faces a crisis. We don’t know how to be tough with Pakistan, for fear of alienating the elite that runs the state, but there doesn’t seem to be another mechanism.

Najma: Media is repeatedly claiming that Washington, under Trump, will be taking a strong arm approach to Pakistan over Afghanistan – Will it be successful?


Stephen: The policy is to use force, except when we don’t. As I said, it is confused because the Trump administration has a lot to worry about and South Asia, including India, comes way down on its list. The problem could come from the neo-Alliance with China, this could cause difficulty if D.C. policy makers ever conclude that the same state that gives us so much trouble in the South China Sea, and which transferred nuclear technology to Pakistan and North Korea was the same state! No fear, they won’t figure this one out.

Najma: Almost 80-100,000 Pakistanis died as a result of fighting terrorism, (including thousands of army soldiers), since 9/11; why the complexity of a problem that continues since the overthrow of Daud Govt and Russian invasion, in 1970’s, is not being understood in its historical complexity? Why Washington continues to argue that “only pressurizing Pakistan can help?”

Stephen: This sounds like a bit of whining, the bigger problem is that the chickens are coming home to roost in Pakistan. Pakistan fomented unrest in Afghanistan from the Z.A. Bhutto years, and in India even before that. Other countries do this also, including India in Sri Lanka and the US in several places.

Najma: What will be the security implications for Afghanistan if Pakistan/US relations take a turn for the worse?

Stephen: I think that the generals may not have their way in the present [US] administration. Ideally, we will pull out and let Pakistan perform the role that it was supposed to perform when the Pakistan army was created-Pakistan would be the strong state that could protect India from the terrorists in North West of Pakistan. It may be too late for that.

Najma: You had once argued that Pakistan should be awarded a nuclear deal similar to the Indian deal? But despite Pakistani efforts to woe the US on it, Washington is trying hard to bring India into NSG, forcing Pakistan to rely more and more on China to counter India; What’s happening? 

Stephen: Yes, I made that argument, but was overcome by the sympathy for India, which had a better record on nuclear matters. It turns out that for both states going nuclear was a disaster, except that nuclear weapons make war practically impossible in South Asia.

Najma: Pakistan and almost all its public and institutions, who once looked towards the US as a messiah complex in external policy/ have now started looking towards China; Does that concern Washington? Will Washington change its India-Centric approach to increase its leverage over Pakistan? 


Stephen: In an early speech given in Pakistan, I praised India for its non-alignment and urged Pakistan to do the same. They are pursuing similar policies toward the outside world, imagine an unpartitioned India with good relations with Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, the US, and Europe.

Najma: Do you think Pakistan has the capacity to do well out of CPEC?

Stephen: That is for Pakistanis to determine; whether it can withstand pressure from China or whether it must look for another outside power to help balance India.

Najma: No one in Pakistan is expecting the army to take over, Nawaz Sharif’s party is in power in both centers and largest province of Punjab but most in US media are presenting Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification as army take over. Do you also see the current political events in Pakistan as threatening democracy and preceding an army takeover?

Stephen: I don’t expect the military to allow a true democracy to come to power in Pakistan, they want suitable civilian faces in the important seats. This would suit the US, but we have low standards of ‘democracy’ when it comes to states such as Pakistan.